The seminal event of the year for my team is approaching and with it, the stress level of most is on the rise. EMCWorld is a big deal for vLab. It is our most public event and is, to steal from economic / political dialogue, too big to fail. Every year we add capacity, functionality, and content specific for the show in support of EMC’s business. The show basically consumes the first half of the year and places the proverbial “eye of Sauron” directly on vLab. With all of this attention and publicity comes a lot of stress. It has, at times, boiled over but for the most part the team does a good job holding it together and to date, each show has been considered a large success. I want to use this post to comment on how managers can manage not only their own stress but also that of their teams. Both are critical pieces and merit discussion.
They all mention a variety of things: eat well, get sleep, learn relaxation techniques, learn your triggers. All of this will make you more healthy and make things, in general, more enjoyable. Work is listed as an obvious source of stress and is a trigger for many people. As leaders, stress at work has an impact not only for ourselves and our own well-being but also on our teams. Managing stress becomes a benefit for ourselves and for the quality of our leadership.
One observation I’ve made over time is that a leader’s personal stress is picked up on by a team. A group will take on the tone and tenor of a leader and if that leader is noticeably stressed, the team will be as well. Having a stressed team, while valuable at times (urgency is needed, even if it adds stress) can erode morale over time. Managing one’s own stress is an obvious technique for helping with this. If it doesn’t exist, stress won’t be apparent and hence won’t creep into your team. Given the impossibility of eliminating stress, we are challenged to isolate that stress from our teams. This can be done in a variety of ways but one of the most important is to watch tone when communicating with your team. There are subtle ways that stress can creep in – your temper is shorter, your default urgency level rises, and you can become more demanding. Many of us also tend toward more of a micro-management style as our own personal stress level increases. None of these help your team – who in the end are the very folks who will deliver for you, reducing the pressures of the job. It is important to keep that stress isolated from your team – or at least isolate the negative aspects. This takes a lot of self awareness and practice – it’s not easy. We must also give ourselves a break and recognize that stress is a natural reaction to tense situations and can’t be eliminated. When recognized, I have found that taking the proverbial breath and re-engaging can be effective. It is also worth reaching out to people if they have been directly affected. Simply apologizing and explaining why something occurred can go a long way.
I chose the word “isolate” in the previous section for a very specific reason. Isolate does not mean hide. Being transparent with my team about my stress factors is another means to combat them. I like to let my team know when I’m stressed and more importantly, why I’m stressed. This is not done with the full weight of the stress but as information. Explaining why you’re pushing something or why a deliverable is suddenly very important leads to better understanding within your team. And I’ve found that when people understand why they’re doing something, they tend to produce at a higher rate. What we’re doing tends to be easier to do if we know why we’re doing it. It’s the same reason I was always better at doing the dishes than I was at making my bed. Doing the dishes lets me eat again, making my bed… not so much. Discussing the stress also helps to lessen it simply by sharing it. As a leader, it is not necessary to carry all of the weight for a team. Hand the team a part of the boulder, don’t drop it on their head.
The last point I would like to touch on concerns stress within your team. Just as there will be stress in your own life, as a leader, we must recognize that there will be stress within our teams. We must learn to see it in individuals and respond to it effectively. Ignoring it will only lead to burn out and responding to it incorrectly only exacerbates the issue. Ongoing touch points and communication is a key factor in reducing stress. Simply asking someone how they’re doing goes a long way. Be sincere and listen to the answer. You might get some praise or a complete vent. You have to listen and respond – commit to help if asked. Some people don’t like to share and that is fine as well. I have a simple rule around this that I have implemented in many of the teams that I have managed. I tell everyone, top to bottom, “If you need a break, call me, tell me, and take a day, no questions asked.” There is nothing so important in our jobs that a day’s delay is worth more than the mental health of someone on your team. If you want people to produce beyond the next task or deliverable, you have to see ahead. Don’t focus on the fire that needs to be put out today, save the firefighter for the next ten. It will go a long way and it is simple. Give those that work for you the break you’d like once in a while. We all look forward to the weekend for a reason.